Words have always fascinated me. They are so incredibly powerful.
They have the potential for moving us all. Any one of us. Whether they’re hopeful, or sad, encouraging, or mean, they are capable of delivering a punch to the gut – for better or worse. I’ve seen words move the bravest of people to tears and the grouchiest of the bunch to smiles. Even the happy-go-lucky among us have boiled up in anger when just the right blend of words hit where it counts. Our entire day can instantaneously turn upside down – or even right side up – depending on their substance and delivery.
Why do words affect us so much, when they’re simply a grouping of letters, strung together and shared? More so, how is a single one – or even two, as in my case – capable of eliciting such guttural reactions, striking a nerve and then staying with us forever?
Here is my story, summed up below, with my analysis intertwined within.
It began with the words that started it all. Blindsided, in my still-innocent years, they came at me with simple, yet powerful jabs.
* Here comes Chia! *
* Hey, Chia Pet! *
* Ch, Ch, Ch Chia! *
They felt like knives – each sharper than the last – inflicting damage with every thrust. Even worse was the twist of the handle, as those around him took part in the kill. Stabbed and bleeding, I retreated, trying to shelter myself – no, shelter my emotions – from the barrage.
There, in the shadows of a middle school awning, I stood helplessly – a 12-year old, freckle-faced child with uncombable hair. Eyes cowered in shame, I pulled my book bag close into my chest, holding pressure on the punctured soul that lay beneath. I thought, at that moment, of all the ways in the world in which I could change my look, and make the taunting disappear, but instead buried myself deeper into the comfort of my hiding place. In the midst of those confusing teenage years – worse, ‘tweenagehood’ – where confidence seemed to hang by every thread of our peers’ spoken word, I couldn’t think of anything worse to be called.
I remember him, the child who labeled me with those hurtful words – that very first time. I remember because it was the first time of many. He was my Tormentor Zero. Much like patient zero, he was the first of what I term the ‘infectious epidemic’ of name-calling. You may feel it more appropriate if I had labeled myself – ‘Bullied Zero’ – but that would in fact be wrong. I’m not the first to have experienced this, after all. Bullying is known to be an age-old pastime, even if it didn’t always go by that name. We find it everywhere, from classic books like Of Mice and Men to movies and television shows like Back to the Future and Stranger Things. No, I’d rather the label not be placed on me – and not because I’m ashamed, but because I’d like the onus to be on him, the tormentor himself – Tormentor Zero.
I set out to look for the root of the term – the hateful bully. The origin of it dates back many centuries, with drastically different meanings over time. It started out as a good thing – a ‘sweetheart,’ and then a ‘friend’ – but then evolved to take on its negative connotation of modern day some time around the late 1700’s, with its current Merriam Webster definition, a ‘blustering, browbeating person; especially one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable.’
My bully was tormentor zero, and his evil intention was spread with communicable fierceness, contracted through droplets of ill will, and spewed without any regard for their impact. A good laugh at that age may have been hard to come by, because this one seemed to satisfy their craving on my account.
The infectious nature of it all had quite an effect on me. I began seeking shelter from my bullies, avoiding their path when was feasibly possible – but my dread only served to fuel their malice. The impact of their words were so significant that, of the forty years I’ve lived, the memory remains imprinted in my mind- and the power of this isn’t lost on me. Looking back, I can’t quite recall the majority of events from my childhood – certainly not the day-to-day minutia exchanged with my peers. But not this. This memory stuck.
Why did this, of all memories, become engrained in my mind, painfully recounted now, as an older, more confident adult?
I set out on a search for the answer, as the scientist inside of me longed for a reasonable explanation. Which specific experiences, I asked myself, made it into our memory banks, settling there for a lifetime? Did they possess a certain quality that singled them out among others? A few articles I found immediately supported my hunch – that negative memories stayed with us longer. Published in the New York Times, one stated that “Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.” It went on to say, “Interviews with children and adults up to 50 years old about childhood memories ‘found a preponderance of unpleasant memories, even among people who rated their childhoods as having been relatively pleasant and happy.'”
My experience had indeed made the cut. It was negative enough to remain with me through the years – the ugly nickname I picked up involuntarily at school. By nature of the locks of my hair, I inherited a lifetime of cringe at the mere mention of a sheepish object – an innocent plant. And in case you weren’t fortunate enough to live through the 80’s and see this little creature come to life, here’s a glimpse of the culprit – the Chia Pet.
As for the words themselves, it fascinates me to this day that to the bully, they held no more significance than a fleeting moment of entertainment. They were several seconds that passed, as others did at this age, in the blink of an eye. To me, by contrast, they etched an architectural memory into the grooves of my brain, for a lifetime. An incredible phenomenon.
I tell myself today, and you may be thinking this too, “Who cares! Children can be mean as hell. Deal with it.” And I have. I’ve moved on with my life, even making something quite fabulous of it, I’d venture to say. But the concept of the power of words is what intrigues me, and what motivates me to broach on the topic, maybe even brewing a bit. It’s not easy to expose oneself to such vulnerability, especially when it carries with it so much weight, but I do so because it gives me strength. An ironical truth.
How does a person, I wonder – even a child – lack in moral consciousness to the point where he’s able to single out another, and hammer him down with shame? I remember to this day a similar incident in elementary school, in which classmates all around me made fun of another. She was a little girl who was always the outsider and, in hindsight, may have had special needs. She urinated on herself during recess, that particular day, and all I remember was everyone around me pointing. Laughing. And there I stood, frozen in horror, until they took her away. From that day on, I gave her extra attention – little bits of warmth to help glue her back together on the inside.
Even back then, I couldn’t understand why they did it. Was it their upbringing, or something more deep-rooted – a kink in the DNA pieces that coded for empathy? Or maybe it wasn’t them who were damned, after all, but those of us like me, who took things so personally, to heart. Maybe it was them who’d emerge victorious in this game of life, where survival, as has been proven, is of the fittest.
I can, as a clinician, share that there’s an actual diagnosis for those of us with that extra sensitivity – they call us Highly Sensitive Persons, or HSP’s. Does that mean that the name callers and finger-pointers are conversely Slightly Sensitive? Sure it does, but I’d also wager that the majority of them learned some of their behaviors from their home, and a great NY Times article, based on a Brigham Young University study, actually supported my hunch. “Early family experience,” it said, “May play a key role in the development of social skills and status among peers in the school setting.”
Regardless of how they became that way, I was still Chia Pet to the tormentors, and my urinating buddy was Baby. Countless others were F**kfaces, Losers, Numbnuts and D**kwads. If it hurt, well then, that was too damn bad – you just had to get over it. Now that I’m older (and stronger and wiser), I find that looking back and dissecting it all gives me pleasure. I enjoy finding answers, and I engage in it because I am stronger. I’m able to look at myself – both the present and past me – and laugh. Because feeling confident – being emotionally strong – means possessing the ability to laugh – not at others, but at yourself. To be self-deprecating in that healthy kind of way.
Furthermore, in my search for answers, I’ve come to understand that those mean words uttered by my bullies long ago – those very same ones I cowered from under that awning – were in part responsible for the strength that I have today. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Never before have those words rang more true.
It all winds down to this: I wrote this piece as a look back – to not only tell my story, but to give strength to others who may have been victims of bullies. All of us who have been face to face with our own tormentor zero deserve to have our story heard. It’s not so that others can feel bad for what we’ve been through, but for ourselves to feel great about what we’ve achieved. I look back today and I’m thankful for the boy who teased me. The bully who haunted me at school, day in and day out, also taught me the value of kindness. Because he lacked in it, and because I truly yearned for his compassion, I learned just how much it’s truly worth.
So thank you, tormentor zero, for the power of your words.